No ivy here

Learning at these three schools happens outside the lecture hall

No ivy here

Photography Christinne Muschi/ Deddeda Stemler

Concordia University

Like Rodney Dangerfield and rolling in the mud, Concordia University has a tendency to be underappreciated. Long considered the red-headed stepchild of Montreal’s two English universities, it is often lost in the ivy-tinged shadow of McGill. Many wear their alma mater’s scruffier-than-thou reputation on their sleeve. “Concordia is to McGill what the United Church is to Catholicism,” says one-time contemporary dance major Amy Blackmore. Still, the university has consistently found itself on the wrong end of Maclean’s rankings.

But while the numbers may show the 30,000-student university has certain challenges, they obscure many of the innovative aspects of a Concordia education that attract people like Amy Blackmore. Case in point: the faculty of fine arts, based in the glass-and-steel confines of the university’s new Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Integrated Complex. By design, the roughly 3,700 fine arts students live and work in one of Montreal’s busiest strips—from which students and faculty alike draw inspiration. “There’s no sense of there being an ivory tower here,” says Chris Salter, a computer design professor. “There are no closed-off spaces. There’s more of what I’d call seepage.”

“Seepage” is an odd yet apt description of the department’s philosophy. Students who choose fine arts won’t simply learn their chosen craft; more often than not, they’ll learn how to put it to use once they graduate. The department of design and computation arts doesn’t simply teach the esoteric aspects of the craft, but the practical as well. “In any given week I’ll be teaching the academic, such as media theory, to the hard-core technical, like digital audio design,” says Salter. The department offers a double major in computer science and computation arts, the only one of its kind in North America.

If there is a technological pièce de résistance in the department, it’s the Hexagram Institute. Established in 2001, it is the conglomeration of 16 so-called “new media labs” devoted solely to what the university calls “new processes, creative communities and innovative works or prototypes.” Translation: students get to dream up and make really, really cool stuff.

D. Andrew Stewart, a Concordia graduate, is using Matralab (one of the Hexagram’s spaces) to hone the T-Stick, a length of plumbing tube stuffed with electronics and layered with a touch-sensitive surface. The tube reacts to movement and touch, and when hooked up to a computer it can be manipulated to make custom sounds (a flute, maybe, or a sample of Stewart yelling something quasi-obscene). “It’s all open source,” Stewart says, “meaning you could build one yourself with instructions from the Internet. The gyroscope in it is from a Nintendo Wii controller.”

Matralab director Sandeep Bhagwati, who is also one of nine Canada Research Chairs in fine arts, says Stewart’s T-Stick is typical of the department’s beyond-the-box, interdisciplinary approach to art and performance. Indeed, it’s what attracted him to Concordia. “I have a very structured background as an orchestra director and composition professor,” Bhagwati says. “I really don’t like the divides. I needed input from people who were not musicians.”

Music therapy is another example of the department’s mix of theory and practicality. Music majors typically had three choices once they graduate: teaching, performing or gut-wrenching unemployment. You might say that Concordia’s music therapy program is a welcome fourth option. One of only two master’s-level programs in the country, music therapy students spend three days a week during the 12-month period (a total of 1,200 hours) working at various prenatal, health and palliative care centres, as well as women’s shelters and special education facilities around Montreal.

For professor P. K. Langshaw, interaction with the community at large goes both ways. In 2001, Langshaw began an ad hoc outreach program between her students and those of Dans La Rue, a resource centre for street kids featuring an alternative school. The reason: Langshaw, whose many specialties include computer art design, wanted to demystify the subject for DLR students. Her instinct has legs: today, DLR students can take classes at Concordia, earning the equivalent of six credits for producing university-level works. “For a lot of DLR kids, digital self-expression isn’t something that’s necessarily in their realm,” Langshaw says. “But here they are treated the same as any Concordia student.” It’s a fitting partnership: Concordia itself is dans la rue—and proud to be far away from the ivory towers of certain other universities.

– Martin Patriquin

Laurentian University

“There’s nothing like finishing a tough practice and heading to the beach,” says Daniel Keir, a native of Hamilton and Laurentian University’s three-time MVP soccer player. “I don’t think you’d want to be jumping into Hamilton Harbour after practice,” he adds. Located in Sudbury, Ont., Laurentian University sits on three square kilometres bordered by five lakes, an 18-hole golf course, 32 km of trails and—best of all—a beach.

The school has recently begun capitalizing on its location in order to attract physically active students like Keir. It’s expanded its sports facilities and is giving serious athletes one-on-one attention. There are also new tennis and squash courts, an indoor track and rock-climbing walls.

The athletic focus is working. Today, as the university turns 50 years old, it’s seeing an influx of high school students from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and beyond. Undergraduate applications from the GTA alone were up 20 per cent last year. International applications are up even more.

Keir says he and his father were impressed with how seriously the school took his son’s athletic ambitions. “We went up to visit the school when I was in Grade 12,” says Keir, who graduated with a human kinetics degree this summer. “The athletics director, Pete, took me in and we talked for a good hour. Then he introduced me to the coach, who pointed out some of the amazing players Laurentian had in the past,” says Keir. “Right away I could tell, from an athletic standpoint, they had things together.”

The school’s location also helped him rediscover his love of the outdoors. “I’ve always been an outdoor enthusiast and that helped in my decision,” says Keir. He went ice fishing, kayaking, canoeing, and played outdoor hockey more than ever. “Every neighbourhood has its own little rink,” says Keir. “They maintain the ice pretty much all through the winter. You don’t find that in the city.”

It’s not just the athletic opportunities that are attracting students from the south. Laurentian also has some innovative programs, including a forensic science program and a bachelor of commerce in sports administration, which blends a work term with courses in business and physical education. The School of Engineering offers undergraduate programs in chemical, mechanical and mining engineering. There’s also a three-year-old concurrent B.A. and bachelor of education program.

Construction is now under way on the Living with Lakes Centre, a $20-million, state-of-the-art environmental research facility that’s being built on the shores of Lake Ramsey. The research centre is a testament to the school’s growing reputation for environmental science.

To accommodate the influx of students from the GTA and beyond, Laurentian plans to open a large new residence in 2012. If Keir has anything to do with it, they’ll need the extra beds. “I’ve already coaxed about five other soccer players from Hamilton to choose Laurentian,” he says.

– Josh Dehaas with Cameron Ainsworth-Vincze

University of Victoria

When Stephen Finnis graduated from the top of his class at Summerland Secondary School in 2009, he felt pressure to pick the most prestigious university that offered him a scholarship. He chose the University of Victoria (UVic) instead. “So many people were like, ‘Why do you want to go to UVic? Why not UBC? We’re going to get all the jobs,’ ” the second-year geography student remembers. “I just picked the place that I thought would make me happy.”

Finnis, like many other UVic students, thinks he made the right choice, not for the lectures and seminars, but because of what goes on outside the classroom. Are they satisfied with the quality of the education they’re receiving? Absolutely. But what UVic students rave about is the school’s chill atmosphere.

Situated in a sleepy suburban neighbourhood in B.C.’s capital, UVic is surrounded by dense West Coast rainforest. In the centre of campus, students lounge by Petch Fountain reading textbooks and sipping coffee from the nearby Bibliocafe. They take study-break strolls through the forested Mystic Vale. They gather around to play guitar and sing. Every Wednesday, hundreds assemble near campus to “protest” marijuana laws. Unlike many dark and snowy Canadian campuses, Victoria’s mild climate allows these activities year-round.

Desiree Armstrong, a third-year film writing and business student, immediately took to the laid-back atmosphere when she visited campus while in high school. “I’m from Calgary where people are always in their cars,” she says. “I came here and it was green, bunnies were frolicking, people were smiling—and it was February.”

What Armstrong likes most, though, are the social activities, from Rock Band competitions to surfing clubs. Extracurricular activities are offered at any university, true, but students choose UVic specifically for the fun, says Armstrong.

That and the social engagement. The campus is full of political activists who scrawl chalk messages on brick walls. “Did you know that student $ are going to anti-Semitic speech?” and “Abortion = Hitler? My body is not a death camp.” For some, there’s too much debate. David Foster, a third-year history student, says, “you get to the point where you want to go to Alberta just for a change.”

One October day this fall, the campus was buzzing about a student proposal to set up a sorority and a fraternity on campus. Most student associations have trouble getting students to show up at all; this meeting was standing-room only. Those in favour argued that fraternities and sororities are an opportunity for students to develop strong relationships and pursue volunteer work. Against, said they promote sexism and exclusiveness. The meeting went on for six hours. In the end, the anti-frats won. Afterwards, the campus pubs overflowed with students invigorated by the debate. It was a typical evening at UVic: an afternoon dedicated to social engagement, followed by an evening of beer—and not a textbook in sight.

– Erin Millar